Jack’s Naughty Bits: The Tale of Genji

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Jack's Naughty Bits

As information technology improves, certain sectors of the human brain seem to weaken. Memory is one: while most of us have a hard time remembering whether there’s milk in the fridge, six centuries before the birth of Christ, rhapsodes in Greece (like Plato’s Ion) could recite all of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey by heart. Musical composition seems to be another; as much as I like the tunes of the last 100 years, even the record companies would have to admit that they are the least sublime since the Dark Ages. Finally, I’ve heard it argued that our poetic capacities are on the wane — or perhaps our use of language as a whole. It’s quite possible that technology isn’t to blame for these changes; they might be symptoms of larger cultural dynamics, of which technology might itself only be a component. But, in any case, it is clear there are few if any poetic cultures in the modern world, and what poetry there is is being held in less and less esteem. Weep on, sisters of the sacred well.


If it is true that the world today is at a kind of low point in its dedication to poetry, what points in history have been the highest? Certain cultures have produced multiple poetic geniuses within the same generation (Britain’s brief but lustrous Romantic period is a conspicuous example), but no nation, to my mind, can be as proud of its early poetic history as Japan. Beginning in the seventh century, the ability to generate extemporaneous poems of the highest quality was an integral part of being esteemed in the Japanese court. These days, I get a lot of mileage at cocktail parties by generating spontaneous limericks to order, but even my best attempts would have had me laughed out of Kyoto. Japanese court poems, though often only thirty-one syllables long, are marvels of small packaging — they are ornate vials that often contain the grandest of themes distilled to a rich infusion.


No surprise, then, that although Lady Murasaki’s eleventh-century The Tale of Genji is sometimes considered the first novel in the history of world literature, I enjoy it more for its verse achievements than its prose narrative. In the course of its eleven hundred pages, Genji and his cohorts swap over eight hundred crafted couplets and allude to hundreds more. In the scene below, the exchange of poems between Genji and the old crone, Naishi, who is trying to seduce him retell the narrative line in a kind of soft, exquisite obligato. If there is an art to doublespeak and innuendo, this is it.

* * *  

The Tale of Genji by Shikibu Murasaki

Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

There was a lady of rather advanced years called Naishi. She was wellborn, talented, cultivated and widely respected; but in matters of the heart she was not very discriminating. Genji had struck up relations, interested that her wanton ways should be so perdurable, and was taken somewhat aback at the warm welcome he received. He continued to be interested all the same and had arranged a rendezvous. Not wanting the world to see him as the boy lover of an aged lady, he had turned away further invitations. She was of course resentful.


One morning when she had finished dressing the emperor’s hair and the emperor had withdrawn to change clothes, she found herself alone with Genji. She was bedecked and painted to allure, every detail urging him forward. Genji was dubious of this superannuated coquetry, but curious to see what she would do next. He tugged at her apron. She turned around, a gaudy fan hiding her face, a sidelong glance — alas, the eyelids were dark and muddy — emerging from above it. Her hair, which of course the fan could not hide, was rough and stringy. A very poorly chosen fan for an old lady, he thought, giving her his and taking it from her. So bright a red that his own face, he was sure, must be red from the reflection, it was decorated with a gold painting of a tall grove. In a corner, in a hand that was old-fashioned but not displeasingly so, was a line of poetry: “Withered is the grass of Oaraki.” Of all the poems she could have chosen!


“What you mean, I am sure, is that your grove is summer lodging for the cuckoo.”


They talked for a time. Genji was nervous lest they be seen, but Naishi was unperturbed.


“Sere and withered though these grasses be

They are ready for your pony, should you come.”


She was really too aggressive.


“Were mine to part the low bamboo at your grove,

It would fear to be driven away by other ponies

And that would not do at all.”


He started to leave, but she caught at his sleeve. “No one has ever been so rude to me, no one. At my age I might expect a little courtesy.”


These angry tears, he might have said, did not become an old lady.


“I will write. You have been on my mind a great deal.” He tried to shake her off but she followed after.


“‘As the pillar of the bridge . . .'” she said reproachfully.


Having finished dressing, the emperor looked in from the next room. He was amused. They were a most improbable couple.


“People complain that you show too little interest in romantic things,” he laughed, “but I see that you have your ways.”


Naishi, though much discommoded, did not protest with great vehemence. There are those who do not dislike wrong rumors if they are about the right men.


The ladies of the palace were beginning to talk of the affair — a most surprising one, they said. To no Chujo heard of it. He had thought his own affairs varied, but the possibility of a liaison with an old woman had not occurred to him. An inexhaustibly amorous old woman might be rather fun. He arranged his own rendezvous. He too was very handsome, and Naishi thought him not at all poor consolation for the loss of Genji. Yet (one finds it hard to condone such greed) Genji was the one she really wanted.


Since To no Chujo was secretive, Genji did not know that he had been replaced. Whenever Naishi caught sight of him, she showered him with reproaches. He pitied her in her declining years and would have liked to do something for her, but was not inclined to trouble himself greatly.


One evening in the cool after a shower he was strolling past the Ummeiden Pavilion. Naishi was playing on her lute, most appealingly. She was a unique mistress of the instrument, invited sometimes to join men in concerts before the emperor. Unrequited love gave her playing tonight an especial poignancy.


“Shall I marry the melon farmer?” she was singing, in very good voice.


Though not happy at the thought of having a melon farmer supplant him, he stopped to listen. Might the song of the maiden of E-chou, long ago, have had the same plaintive appeal? Naishi seemed to have fallen into a meditative silence. Humming “The Eastern Cottage,” he came up to her door. She joined in as he sang: “Open my door and come in.” Few women would have been so bold.


“No one waits in the rain at my eastern cottage.

Wet are the sleeves of the one who waits within.”


It did not seem right, he thought, that he should be the victim of such reproaches. Had she not yet, after all these years, learned patience?


“On closer terms with the eaves of your eastern cottage

I would not be, for someone is there before me.”


He would have preferred to move on, but, remembering his manners, decided to accept her invitation. For a time they exchanged pleasant banter. All very novel, thought Genji.


To no Chujo had long resented Genji’s self-righteous way of chiding him for his own adventures. The proper face Genji showed the world seemed to hide rather a lot. To no Chujo had been on the watch for an opportunity to give his friend a little of what he deserved. Now it had come. The sanctimonious one would now be taught a lesson.


It was late, and a chilly wind had come up. Genji had dozed off, it seemed. To no Chujo slipped into the room. Too nervous to have more than dozed off, Genji heard him, but did not suspect who it would be. The superintendent of palace repairs, he guessed, was still visiting her. Not for the world would he have had the old man catch him in the company of the old woman.


“This is a fine thing. I’m going. The spider surely told you to expect him, and you didn’t tell me.”


He hastily gathered his clothes and hid behind a screen. Fighting back laughter, To no Chujo gave the screen an unnecessarily loud thump and folded it back. Naishi had indulged her amorous ways over long years and had had similarly disconcerting experiences often enough before. What did this person have in mind? What did he mean to do to her Genji? She fluttered about seeking to restrain the intruder. Still ignorant of the latter’s identity, Genji thought of headlong flight; but then he thought of his own retreating figure, robes in disorder, cap all askew. Silently and wrathfully, To no Chujo was brandishing a long sword.


“Please, sir, please.”


Naishi knelt before him wringing her hands. He could hardly control the urge to laugh. Her youthful smartness had taken a great deal of contriving, but she was after all nearly sixty. She was ridiculous, hopping back and forth between two handsome young men. To no Chujo was playing his role too energetically. Genji guessed who he was. He guessed too that this fury had to do with the fact that he was himself known. It all seemed very stupid and very funny. He gave the arm wielding the sword a stout pinch and To no Chujo finally surrendered to laughter.


“You are insane,” said Genji. “And these jokes of yours are dangerous. Let me have my clothes, if you will.”


But To no Chujo refused to surrender them.


“Well, then, let’s be undressed together.” Genji undid his friend’s belt and sought to pull off his clothes, and as they disputed the matter Genji burst a seam in an underrobe.


“Your fickle name so wants to be known to the world

That it bursts its way through this warmly disputed garment.

“It is not your wish, I am sure, that all the world should notice.”


Genji replied:


“You taunt me, sir, with being a spectacle

When you know full well that your own summer robes are showy.”


Somewhat rumpled, they went off together, the best of friends. But as Genji went to bed he felt that he had been the loser, caught in such a very compromising position.


An outraged Naishi came the next morning to return a belt and a pair of trousers. She handed Genji a note:


“I need not comment now upon my feelings.

The waves that came in together went out together,

leaving a dry river bed.”


It was an inappropriate reproof after the predicament in which she had placed him, thought Genji, and yet he could imagine how upset she must be. This was his reply:


“I shall not complain of the wave that came raging in,

But of the welcoming strand I must complain.”